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Why You Should Consider Sleepaway Camp

I’m a sleepaway summer camp convert. Four years ago, when my husband and I decided to send our 9-year-old son to camp for two weeks, I was reluctant. But we knew the camp director personally, our son was ready and excited, he had a friend going with him, and my husband had visited the camp and convinced me to loosen my anxious grip.

Now, this summer, my son will return to that camp—he goes for four weeks now—and his younger 9-year-old brother will go for his first two weeks.

What converted me from my nervous reluctance and made me such an evangelistic proponent of sleepaway camp? There were lots of factors, but here are my top four:

Time away from electronics. Studies show that the stress hormone cortisol decreases significantly when people spend time in nature. And while I’m not anti-electronics, I do love knowing that my boys will be spending significant amounts of time this summer in the lake and woods, without access to any video games, social networking or even email.

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Members of a community. At camp, kids stay in cabins with children from different regions and walks of life. They set tables together, perform daily rituals, and build deep friendships with kids they might not otherwise be friends with. Not only are they exposed to different types of people, but they also have to find ways to get along with them, and to work with them as they develop new relationships.

Safe risk-taking opportunities. Especially as they move toward adolescence, children feel the need to test their limits. At camp, they can take these risks under the watchful eye of other adults, proving themselves in positive, nurturing environments. That means they’ll be much less likely to feel the need to test themselves in more dangerous, destructive ways at home.

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Resilience after homesickness. A few days after our son left for camp four summers ago, we received the first of two heartbreakingly sad letters telling us how homesick he was. I’d never heard my introverted, intensely private athlete use words like the ones that filled those letters. One dramatic quote—“These are my tears as I write this,” with dark stains circled on the page—bordered on Victorian literature. Who was he, Emily Brontë?

This homesickness was incredibly difficult for him, and for us as well. However, when he returned home two weeks later, he said of getting through the homesickness, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I did it!” It was resilience in the making. He was stronger and more independent, and he had formed a new piece of his identity that let him know he could handle difficult emotional experiences.

Michael Thompson, the author of Raising Cain and other books about boys, has recently published a book called Homesick and Happy. Thompson writes on PBS.org that 95 percent of kids “experience at least a bit of homesick feelings when they are away from their parents at summer camp. Homesickness is completely normal. If a child loves his or her parents and has a good home, why wouldn’t he or she feel some longing for mom, for dad, for the dog or for home cooking?" He continues, though, to say that “the paradoxical thing about camp is that even though children sometimes report painful levels of homesickness, they often rate themselves as very happy in the activities of the day.
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That’s what we saw in our son. Not only did he end up loving camp—the next year he called us after two weeks and begged us to allow him to stay for a full four weeks—but he loved camp even though it was hard. So in my opinion, the homesickness ended up being one of the best things about camp.

Thompson makes the argument that kids can’t truly form their own identity if they don’t have time away from their parents. And I know from my experience that my son returns each summer transformed in all kinds of positive ways.

His letters have shown this resilience along the way. The very next summer, the letters weren't at all about homesickness. They were about hilarious moments and the fun and joy of independence, play and being fully in the moment of a summer in nature with boys and men who help teach him who he is and who he can become.

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